Yukon students go back to class for the 1st time since COVID-19 shutdown

Yukon students go back to class for the 1st time since COVID-19 shutdown-Milenio Stadium-Canada
Plastic shower curtains hang between some desks at Elijah Smith Elementary School in Whitehorse. Principal Jeff Cressman says he doesn’t want to make school ‘scary’ for students. (Laura Howells/CBC)


Thousands of students return to class in Yukon Thursday, feeling nerves and excitement as some of Canada’s first schools start a vastly different year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s all you can think about for the past week,” said 12-year-old student Maura Gallant, who can’t wait to see friends again.

Schools will not look the same as when they shut down in March, featuring distanced desks and a lot more hand sanitizer.

Plastic shower curtains hang between some desks at Elijah Smith Elementary School in Whitehorse. Red arrows plaster hallway floors to direct student movement. “Sick rooms” are ready to isolate students with a sniffle.

Posters remind students to “show respect” by maintaining distance and washing their hands.

Elijah Smith School-Milenio Stadium-Canada
Red arrows plaster the ground at Elijah Smith Elementary School. (Laura Howells/CBC)

They don’t want to make school “scary,” said principal Jeff Cressman. It’s not gonna be people yelling at a kid if they happen to give you a hug.”

Schools in Whitehorse, Dawson, Carmacks and Teslin reopen Thursday, after Yukon’s first school reopened Wednesday in Pelly Crossing.

Among the new changes, Whitehorse Grade 10 to 12 students will learn from home half the day to limit student mixing. Masks are not mandatory, but recommended for students age 10 and up when distancing isn’t possible.

Teacher Marcia Lalonde is delighted to have kids in class, but said it’s “nerve-racking.” She worries about fostering class community with so much distance.

“Trying to get used to that physical part of it, it’s going to be hard,” said Lalonde, who teaches at Vanier Catholic Secondary School in Whitehorse.

Classrooms set-u with new physical distancing measures-Milenio Stadium-Canada
Classrooms set up with new physical distancing measures in a Whitehorse elementary school. (Submitted by Sharon MacCoubrey)

Parents and students have had mixed emotions and several concerns.

“I feel apprehensive about just the plans … whether those are going to be enough to keep the kids safe,” said Tanya Saxby, who has three children in Whitehorse.

Saxby also worries about taking time off work every time her kid gets a sniffle.

Yukon’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley said the territory is in a good position for schools to reopen, and “the kids are ready for this.”

Back-to-school Yukon-Milenio Stadium-Canada
Posters reminding students to ‘show respect’ by following COVID-19 safety measures will hang across Yukon schools this years. (Laura Howells/CBC)

Yukon currently has no active cases of COVID-19, with its 15th case recently recovered.

“As [one of] the first in the country to start the school year, we also have an opportunity to show how well we can do this and how well we can work together,” Hanley said Wednesday.

“We will all learn as we go and adapt and modify plans.”

Half-day classes have received pushback from several parents in Whitehorse, who think full-day schooling should be a priority. The Yukon Teachers’ Association has also raised concerns about tight timelines and a lack of information.

Marcia Lalonde teacher-Milenio Stadium-Canada
Marcia Lalonde, right, says she feels like a first-time teacher this year at Vanier Catholic Secondary School. (Laura Howells/CBC)

Some parents are choosing to home school to avoid the risk.

Yukon does not have school boards. Each school has developed its own specific plan for reopening, following Hanley’s safety guidelines.

At Vanier Catholic Secondary School, for instance, students will use plastic bins instead of lockers in order to prevent clusters in the hallway.

Elijah Smith Elementary School has created extra classes for more space.

Another Whitehorse school will hold class outside for the first few weeks.

Elijah Smith Elementary School-Milenio Stadium-Canada
Some teachers thought ‘outside the box’ and hung plastic shower curtains between desks at Elijah Smith Elementary School, says principal Cressman. (Laura Howells/CBC)

Class sizes will remain at the usual caps, which range between 18 and 26 for students in kindergarten to Grade 9. For students doing half-day classes in Grade 10 to 12, there will be about 14 students per class instead of 28.

As he awaits the kids on Thursday morning, principal Cressman says he feels ready.

Or at least, he says, “as ready as we can be.”


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